Years ago, Tigers manager Sparky Anderson used to say that he couldn’t accurately gauge his teams until the 40-game mark, or about a quarter of the way into the baseball season.
Pistons coach Dwane Casey said early in the season that he would take a similar approach in trying to assess where his team is. The Pistons crossed the 20-game mark with a flurry — with their best win of the season, over the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night.
In the early aftermath, Casey wasn’t ready to heap praise on his team, which improved to 13-7, a game worse than last season’s mark with Stan Van Gundy.
“I’m not going to evaluate now. I’m emotional and happy. Catch me after a bad practice and I may be a little more truthful,” Casey said Saturday. “We’re still growing and creating good habits. I see them coming. People are accepting their roles and playing in their roles and until our shooting comes around, our defense is improving. We’re still growing.”
After taking some time to think it through, Casey had a better assessment, ahead of Monday’s matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Nobody in that locker room — starting with me — is thinking we’ve done anything. We haven’t done anything,” he said. “We’re growing and developing and we’re getting better; we have a long way to go and we’re not getting ahead of ourselves.
“Every day is a teaching day for us with our team. If you look at it any other way than that, we’re wrong.”
It’s still early in the season, but there are some reasons to believe in what the Pistons have done through the first quarter of the season. Here’s a look at five things that have worked and five things to watch in the next 20 games:
■ 1. Blake Griffin is making things easier. With an offseason to get more comfortable with the offense and improve his chemistry with Andre Drummond, Griffin has assumed the unquestioned leadership role on the team — and he’s doing it both on and off the court as the vocal leader. If the Pistons remain relevant in the East by the All-Star break, Griffin should vault into the conversation for league MVP. There are obvious candidates with higher profiles — Giannis Antetokounmpo, for starters — but Griffin is changing the culture on a Pistons team that has been mediocre, at best, for a decade.
■ 2. Andre Drummond is an All-Star. He’s an All-Star center in the East and is among the top five centers in the league. That’s a significant improvement from where he was a couple years ago — and some of that is buoyed by Griffin’s arrival. He still has areas where he can improve, but he could lead the league in rebounding again, while increasing his scoring.
■ 3. Casey has been as advertised: He won coach of the year last season but taking over a mediocre franchise came with no guarantees. In the early going, Casey has been worth every bit of his contract, helping everyone settle into roles — and buy into a team concept. They had an early win streak, then some adversity in a five-game skid, but they’ve bounced back from that as well. Casey could be in the conversation for coach of the year again.
■ 4. Stanley Johnson is reincarnated: After a lackluster season — and a forgettable first 10 games, Johnson has found his rhythm as a super sub, coming off the bench and posting 12.5 points and 36 percent on 3-pointers. He looks like a different player now and it’s partly due to Casey’s unwavering belief in him, which meant putting him in a reserve role.
■ 5. Reggie Jackson is healthy. Those elusive four words have hampered the Pistons over the past couple seasons, which has been part of the Pistons’ downfall. He’s settled into a smaller role this season, but fewer touches have helped him become more efficient. He’s getting his burst back — and his confidence with it.
5 things to watch
■ 1. All clear on the injury front: Besides a scare with Jackson early in the season, the Pistons have avoided big injuries. Luke Kennard has missed 15 games but the bench has endured without him, with more minutes for Langston Galloway and Bruce Brown.
■ 2. Brown, a rookie second-round pick, has found his way on the court, guarding the likes of James Harden and Steph Curry, in his baptism by fire. He and Johnson make up what Casey calls “The Rottweilers” for their dogged defense. His offense is developing but Casey has confidence in him.
■ 3. Johnson has been inconsistent in his first three seasons. Whether he can continue his recent surge will be critical to the Pistons’ success. They’ve been able to outplay most other reserve groups with Johnson, Ish Smith and Galloway. If Johnson can keep at a high level, he’ll make a case to return as a restricted free agent — with a hefty raise.
■ 4. The Pistons are 10-6 against the East and 3-1 versus the West. They’re handling their business against sub-.500 teams and getting some good wins against the Sixers, Warriors and Raptors. They’ll need to continue on a similar pace to contend for a top-four East seed.
■ 5. They’ve also done a good job of protecting home court, with a 9-3 record. It’s just a matter of continuing to build on Casey’s principles of winning habits — though he said it’s “not sexy” but effective.